The New York Jets went into the preseason with plenty of aspirations for the future, but little hope for the present. They were coming off a 4-12 season, hadn’t posted a winning record since 2010, had fired their popular head coach, but perhaps worst of all, didn’t appear to have a quarterback capable of throwing the ball. That’s kind of important.
Then on August 11, IK Enemkpali punched one of those quarterbacks in the face, broke his jaw – and may have saved the Jets’ season in the process.
When Enemkpali clocked Geno Smith that day over $600, he inadvertently ended the quarterback competition between the third-year dud and Ryan Fitzpatrick, and subsequently got himself released from the team by new head coach Todd Bowles. Maybe now, Bowles should buy him dinner.
Because if not for Fitzpatrick, New York might not be 10-5 and in position to return to the postseason following their 26-20 overtime win over the hated New England Patriots on Sunday. Fitzpatrick threw for 296 yards and three touchdowns against the Patriots, posting a passer rating of 109.4. Over his last five games – all of which were wins – Fitzpatrick has 13 touchdowns, one interception and a rating of 106.5.
Not bad for the journeyman QB of our generation, a guy who has started for half-a-dozen NFL teams over the past decade – but may have finally found a home in New York.
From stints in St. Louis and Cincinnati to his breakout years in Buffalo (where a 20-33 career record is good enough to be considered a revelation), Fitzpatrick has always been the QB of last resort – the guy you turned to only when all other options had been exhausted. In 2014, he went 6-6 as the starter for the Houston Texans, a team that has started four different quarterbacks this season. Even they didn’t think enough of Fitz to bring him back.
Now, the 33-year-old Fitzpatrick is one win away from guiding the Jets to the postseason. What’s more, he’s come to embody the spirit of a team made up of cast-offs and underdogs. Guys like running back Chris Ivory, who is finally a full-time starter for the first time in his six-year career and is closing in on 1,000 yards. And Brandon Marshall, the receiver thought to be washed up for the Bears last year, who now has a career-high 13 touchdowns. And Eric Decker, the receiver who was only a byproduct of Peyton Manning’s greatness, who has 11 touchdowns himself – including the game-winner on Sunday.
All of these guys have given New York a suddenly dangerous offense that can handle themselves against New England. But that’s not all – the Jets once again have a top-five defense under the direction of Bowles and the return of Darrelle Revis.
Next week, Fitzpatrick will return to Buffalo with the Jets’ playoff hopes on the line. It will be a return to the one city that actually embraced him for longer than two years, and he will have the opportunity to rewrite his own history with a win. If he does that – and New York can best former coach Rex Ryan – then the Jets will be going back to the playoffs.
And Fitzpatrick will have finally found a home. His career has mirrored a season that began with the punch heard ’round New York and could end in an unexpected return to the playoffs. Sometimes the worst starts have the best endings.